March 11 started out as another ordinary Friday at Kamaishi East Junior High School, which stands by the mouth of the Unosumai River that runs through the city into Otsuchi Bay. Classes were over for the day and students were about to start their after-school club activities when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m.

Vice Headmaster Yoko Murakami was at her desk in the faculty room when the office began to shake, knocking everything to the floor.

“It was the first time in my teaching career that I hid under my desk,” said the 53-year-old educator. “The temblor was really strong. It was nothing like past earthquakes I’ve experienced.”

Although the Sanriku region, a coastal area that stretches from Iwate to Miyagi prefectures, had long been warned of a possible major earthquake, locals say the magnitude of this temblor and the tsunami it triggered far exceeded their projections.

More than 850 people died in the city of Kamaishi, and some 450 others are still missing. But only five of the casualties were elementary or junior high school students.

About 2,900 students who attend the city’s 14 schools managed to survive, including students of the three schools overwhelmed by the tsunami — Kamaishi East Junior High School, Unosumai Elementary School and Toni Elementary School — who reacted quickly and escaped.

Local educators credit the disaster prevention education program that Kamaishi began a few years ago for the high survival rate.

“If it weren’t for them, I don’t think I would be alive,” said Shin Saito, 38, an English teacher at Kamaishi East in the city’s Unosumai district, one of the hardest-hit communities.

Once the quake stopped, all the teaching staff at the school rushed to evacuate the students, fearing tsunami.

According to the drills they had practiced, the teachers were supposed to gather the students on the school grounds and immediately do a head count. Once it was confirmed that everyone was present, the teachers would then lead them to a designated evacuation site on higher ground. That day, however, the microphone was knocked out by a power outage and the teachers were unable to issue instructions to the entire school, according to Saito.

Without being told what to do, the students gathered on the school grounds and began running toward the evacuation site located about 1 km away.

Recalling the time they dashed out, students said they knew it was not an ordinary earthquake.

“I was nervous. I thought tsunami would come and was desperately trying to escape,” said Aki Kawasaki, 14, who was attending basketball practice when the quake hit.

Her classmate, Kana Sasaki, 14, said she wasn’t sure whether she needed to escape but “before I realized, I was running. My feet were moving already.”

Fumiya Akasaka, 14, didn’t really expect that tsunami would come. “But it was really an extraordinary shake. I saw older students running and followed them,” he said.

The fact that the students fled their school premises apparently influenced neighboring Unosumai Elementary School. Adhering to quake drill procedures, the school had already evacuated the children to the third floor, Murakami said. But after seeing the junior high school students running away, the elementary school followed them.

Both schools were swallowed by the giant tsunami that struck about half an hour after the quake. A car remains stuck on the third floor of the elementary school, indicating how high the water reached.

“If we had made our move 10 minutes later, our lives would have been over,” said Saito, who checked all the classrooms and confirmed that no one was left behind before he caught up with the students.

But the story of their evacuation doesn’t end there.

When the students and Saito reached the evacuation site, an elderly woman told them that part of the cliff behind the site had collapsed during the earthquake. “She told me that all the years she had lived there she hadn’t seen that happen. She said this was bad and huge tsunami could come,” he said.

The teachers urged the students to continue running up the road to a new location a few hundred meters away. On their way, the junior high school students ran behind the elementary school children and supported them, Saito said.

By the time they reached the next evacuation site, however, tsunami were sweeping over Unosumai. “I looked back and saw the approaching tsunami and how houses and cars were smashing into our school building,” Saito recalled.

Seeking to move to even higher ground, the students dashed from the second evacuation site and continued running up the hill. “It wasn’t like they were very calm as they evacuated. They were screaming. They were really running for their lives,” he said.

“I was coaxing a few elementary school kids to keep moving, but as I ran, I remember hitting my legs because they were trembling,” said Saito, who still dreams about the experience.

In the end, tsunami swept over the first evacuation site and stopped only a few meters from the second location. But all the students were safe.

Through their swift action, the 212 junior high school students not only saved themselves but also the 350 elementary school children and their teachers, and even some from the local community.

It was still freezing cold in Kamaishi, and the teachers and students took shelter in the gymnasium of one of the school buildings in the city. They evacuated to another school the next day, and were eventually reunited with their families.

Nearly 70 percent of Kamaishi East students lost their homes, and 14 students lost either one or both parents, according to the school. Of the 21 teachers, seven saw their homes destroyed, including Murakami and Saito.

But the teachers at Kamaishi East are proud their students applied the knowledge and skills developed through the disaster prevention education program that the school had been working on with Kamaishi’s board of education during the past three years.

According to the board’s Katsumi Yokote, the Sanriku region experienced huge quakes in 1896 and 1933 that claimed thousands of lives, and stories of the disasters have been handed down from one generation to another. But as the region had been expected to experience a major temblor within the next 30 years, the disaster prevention program was started to raise awareness among the young.

Three years ago, the board of education compiled a series of teaching materials on tsunami in different subject areas to make sure students comprehended what they might have to face one day.

For example, sixth-graders researched the local tsunami history in social studies classes, and studied the physics of tsunami in science class. In their reading class, the students read about the 1896 tsunami and wrote an essay on it.

Because Kamaishi East was designated as one of the schools that would work on its own programs, it offered special sessions for the students to learn first aid and how to cook food and run a soup kitchen. The students also made their own hazard map and performed quake drills several times.

Murakami said the goal of the program was to teach students how to save themselves, as well as others, in the event of a disaster. “I believe our students were able to show leadership in this evacuation,” she said.

Yokote of the board of education said the students of Toni Elementary School, which was also hit by tsunami, likewise made it to higher ground and survived.

The city will continue to work on the programs, he said, but for now they will also start classes that emphasize the preciousness of life.

The new school year at Kamaishi East began April 25. As the school building can no longer be used, the students are currently sharing Kamaishi Junior High School until a temporary home for the school is built later this year.

Kamaishi East students Kawasaki, Sasaki and Akasaka, who started their third year, said everyone seems fine at school but aren’t sure how they are at home. School life has changed, however. Although classes are held separately, they do club activities with the other school, and none of the Kamaishi East school events they look forward to have yet to be scheduled, they said.

Kawasaki, student body vice president, said that despite all that’s happened, she wants to ensure that the first-year students of Kamaishi East have the opportunity to learn their school culture, such as greeting everyone they meet.

“I don’t want us to feel like victims. I want to make sure that our school maintains its identity,” she said.

Akasaka, captain of the judo team, said training isn’t the same because their host school doesn’t have a judo team and lacks tatami mats. “Things aren’t easy, but I want to do everything I can,” said Akasaka, whose family has been renting a house since late April after their home was destroyed in the disaster.

The students said they are grateful for the Self-Defense Forces and for the support of volunteers who came to the city.

Sasaki said that volunteering was something they learned through the disaster prevention program, and she wants to demonstrate what she learned at some point.

“Everything is different now, but I want us students of Kamaishi East to do what we can,” said Sasaki, who recently moved to temporary housing with her family.

Saito, the English teacher, said the students have yet to realize how fortunate they are to have survived the disaster.

“Things are very tough already, and the students may face many difficulties going forward, but I know they won’t be defeated,” he said.

“It’s the responsibility of we adults to make sure they can utilize their skills to survive, and that they can even lead a better life because of what they have experienced,” Saito said.

“But the fact is, it’s the students who are giving us hope and the strength to move on.”

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